Newhouse News Service June 27, 2003
Ground Troops Remain at 146,000; Little Prospect of Returning Soon
By Wayne Wooley
Nearly two months after President Bush announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq, an occupying force of 146,000 troops faces the prospect of continuing deadly attacks with no promise of coming home any time soon.
Though more than 130,000 mostly Navy and Air Force personnel have been recalled from the Persian Gulf, the ground force now occupying Iraq is nearly as big as it was on April 9, the day Baghdad fell, according to an analysis of units now deployed.
The bulk of the two Army divisions and one Marine division that formed the backbone of the initial assault into Iraq remain there.
A top Army commander conceded this week that continuing unrest on the streets derailed plans to replace the 3rd Infantry Division the first U.S. unit to reach Baghdad with the 1st Armored Division.
"That did not happen because the security situation didn't move as quickly in a direction we thought it would toward stability," Lt. Gen. John Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week. "We needed the additional forces."
Both units will remain in Iraq for the time being, he said.
So will the 101st Airborne Division, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment and 1st Marine Division, all of which also participated in the initial invasion, as well as units that arrived near the end of the attack: the 4th Infantry Division and 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
Abizaid, who is expected to win Senate confirmation to replace Gen. Tommy Franks as the leader of the U.S. Central Command, said he is working on plans to rotate at least some of the troops home. But he was unable to say how many or how soon.
Meanwhile, attacks against coalition forces continued to escalate this week. An Army spokesman in Iraq described the violence as a "spike" and not a trend.
Military analysts say there are too many variables at work to determine whether that assessment is accurate.
"It's entirely possible it will all go away in a couple of days," said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense think tank in Virginia. "And it's entirely possible you ain't seen nothing yet."
Pike said the sheer number of coalition troops on the ground makes casualties inevitable.
"If you figure how many American troops are over there and figure how many assault weapons are in the hands of young Iraqi men with no air conditioning and no jobs, you can imagine the possibilities," he said.
Pike said the decision by Paul Bremer, the top U.S. administrator in Iraq, to dissolve the Iraqi Army only adds to the chaos on the streets.
"He basically put 300,000 people with recent small arms training into the street with no money," Pike said.
Defense analysts say attacks on coalition forces will continue until the bulk of Iraqis believe they control their own destiny.
"We don't have a lot of time before things turn really nasty," said Timothy Lomperis, a former Army intelligence officer in Vietnam who served as an instructor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "This is like Northern Ireland for us right now."
Lomperis, now chairman of the political science department at St. Louis University, said casualties will continue because the only way troops can keep order is to perform foot patrols on narrow streets where many people are hostile and local intelligence is lacking.
"With small-unit patrols, you need people on the ground who can tell you, 'Bad guys around the next corner,'" he said. "Unfortunately, our track record on really good local intelligence is not great. It wasn't in Vietnam, and it isn't now either."
Former Army intelligence officer and author Ralph Peters says many of the casualties are a direct result of the Pentagon's efforts to use more aggressive patrols to flush out supporters of Saddam Hussein's regime. He believes the escalation in the violence may actually indicate the tide is turning and order is coming.
"It's painful at the moment, getting all the bad guys out," Peters said. "But it's better to pay the butcher up front."
But that doesn't make it any easier for the troops, some of whom deployed for war before Christmas, fought a bitter campaign and now swelter in dusty places where distinguishing friend from foe is as difficult as ever.
Copyright © 2003, Newhouse News Service